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Unfashionable and Unabashed

Daily Gullet Staff

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<img align="right" hspace="5" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1130070208/gallery_29805_1195_24817.jpg">In the long-awaited final installment of our three-part interview with Santi Santamaria of Can Fabes restaurant in Sant Celoni, Spain, Pedro Espinosa talks to the three-Michelin star chef about the impact of the guides on his business, the current state of Catalan cooking, the role of the media, and cooking as living heritage. Click here to read the first part of this fascinating interview, and here for part two.

by Pedro Espinosa

Pedro: How are the hotel and Espai Coch performing? Are you happy with the results?

Santi: I’m very happy. To me the important thing was that this change would fit well with our customers and that people who came would get good vibes. We’re moving in the right direction.

We had to give it a modern face for a basic reason: the restaurant cannot distance itself from the new generations. This is essential to me. And part of the theater is how the stage is decorated. Then, the important thing to me is the play. But the scenery has to be there.

Pedro: The hotel has been open for a short time.

Santi: Since October last year. And in July 2003 we opened the new restaurant zone. Step by step. I had planned to tackle the project in phases, but when I started I said to myself: you have to complete it at once if you don’t want to be doing this for the rest of your life.

When you’re so far from the city, you have to be able to renovate to attract customers. You must give them an incentive. Years ago, I did gastronomic workshops. Now I feel very much like devoting a year, I don’t know which, to the Sent Soví [the first Catalan cookbook and one of the oldest in Europe, circa 1324; see part two. -Ed]. No matter how I’m criticised, making a year of Sent Soví. With my vision, evidently. An interpretation of its recipes through my vision. I tested and did some things some time ago. The issue is that I have to stand behind what I do and this project requires a lot of rigor.

I understand that one can be criticised by the results of a work. What can’t be said about us is that there’s a lack of rigor. If there’s rigor, I don’t mind the criticism. If I were accused of lack of rigor, that would hurt me. I can’t make a work out of one of the great classics, let’s say Apicius, and present it in public, without content. I have to put all my personal effort behind it. This requires time, making a break and doing this work for a whole year. I feel like doing this. For some time I’ve felt like doing this.

Pedro: Is that type of cooking recoverable?

Santi Yes, it would be my cooking, but going through a process of looking for tastes and affinities.

Pedro: Do you have any new projects in mind? We’ve heard of a new restaurant near Barcelona.

Santi: We’re on it. It’s a new building, with the Hesperia group, located in Hospitalet. The architect is Richard Rogers and the structure is already built. The restaurant will be on the top with a dramatic view of the area of 15km of visibility. It will be a gastronomic restaurant. Pure and simple.

It’s going to be a tough challenge, because Hospitalet is not an easy place. Though I believe in five or six years lots of things are going to happen in Catalonia. At least, that’s what I think. Today, for instance, an important tourism announcement has been published about a third runway in El Prat’s Airport and the campaign by travel operators for direct transoceanic routes to Catalonia without stops in Madrid. La Vanguardia’s director said in his editorial that in Catalonia half a million overnight stays are lost each year because of this lack of international connections.

Barcelona is an important, renowned city and I think Madrid will have to ease its congestion. This madness of megacities has no sense in Europe. Naturally, decision centres, power centres, don’t give way. We all know of the strategic importance of communications. Without a doubt, the AVE and the third runway will make it so that Barcelona occupies the place it deserves.

Pedro: Are you thinking of doing something outside Catalonia? Because Sant Celoni’s results are very good.

Santi: I’m very happy with Sant Celoni. Very happy. We were extremely well received from the very first moment. It’s the restaurant profile I like. We don’t have to be in fashion.

That’s something I love, not being in fashion. And to be labelled as uncreative, that’s something that I’m crazy about. After so many years of repeating this, I’m not forced to do anything. I don’t have to come up with foolish things each year and I focus on what I enjoy. This helps me a lot. It’s not mandatory for me to come up with new foolish things so people will say I’m very creative.

Pedro: And people keep coming.

Santi: They do, and since they took that label from me, it leaves me at ease. It takes away a lot of pressure.

When I return to any classic cooking theme, I gave you pigeon yesterday? Pigeon with foie gras?

Pedro: Yes, I was going to ask you about the sauce.

Santi: Well, it was a sauce made with its carcass, making use of the cooking juices and some, just a little, touch of cardamom on top. This so classic pigeon, that we’ve been cooking for so many years…

Pedro: With a precise and accurate cooking point.

Santi: Well, it leaves me completely at ease that I’ll be able to do this all my life. Because it’s wonderful. This is good today and it will be good in 150 years if there are good pigeons and good cooks to cook them. What do they want me to do to this pigeon? Torture it, make it a purée? To me, this is cooking: first not to ruin good products, and if they’re good we can improve them. A little, not much. I find this very easy. Sometimes, my friends tell me: it can’t be, don’t fool us, that’s very difficult. It’s not, it’s very easy. It’s common sense. Having common sense. There are things that I wouldn’t mix.

<img align="left" src="http://forums.egullet.org/uploads/1123620128/gallery_29805_1195_3585.jpg">Sometimes I tell to my stagiares: come on, let’s see what dish you can prepare. And many times I find myself telling them: how did it occur to you to mix this with this? It’s difficult. How could you come to the conclusion of mixing some elements? What more natural than a pigeon sauce made with its bones and blood? There are some things I like, from time to time, that are savory-sweet contrasts. In Catalonia we’re making an excessive use of them, though there’s a historic component behind it. But fruits can saturate.

Pedro: It looks like it’s become fashionable to add them to fish dishes.

Santi: Me, I don’t even serve lemon with fish, I take a stand on it! When I see a citrus fruit in fish, I think that it’s adding acidity to it to mask the raw product. I’m not saying that there isn’t any preparation which requires a touch of acidity. But an excess of citrus, I don’t know. The spiny lobster I gave you yesterday, it had a little curry, but almost nothing, very subtle. You sensed the seafood’s taste.

The other day, I was at Barcelona’s Central Market and I stopped at a store to see some spiny lobsters. We were three or four people; one of us was my son. I told them, "These spiny lobsters are from Africa."

"How do you know?" they asked.

"Well, they aren’t from the Mediterranean. They’re different. I believe they come from Africa. Perhaps they come from the Indian Ocean, but they’re not from here."

I approached the store’s counter and the person in charge said, "Dammit! Santi, how are you? Look, look who’s here!" His brother, his wife and his partner came: "Look, Santi, my compliments. Amazing, what spiny lobsters we had at your restaurant -- nothing to do with what I’ve got here. With these, you (wouldn't have been able) to cook the spiny lobster I had in your restaurant."

This is fantastic. "With these, you won’t cook that spiny lobster I had." I’m telling you, those lobsters came from South Africa.

Pedro: To wrap up, what the heck did you serve with the eggplant last night?

Santi: Slightly smoked cod fish’s eggs. I remove all its eggs, make a paste and add a touch of cream. The cod fish is a thing, but the eggplant… There’s this Japanese restaurant in Barcelona, Shunka, behind Hotel Colón in the Cathedral’s Square. If you want to go there is great, very simple, I think they’re closed in August. Very well known, very cheap, they treat everybody great, they work with wonderful products.

You must go to the bar. Ask him to prepare a menu for you. Unconventional. They give you this eggplant (I’ve checked some Japanese books afterwards and it’s a classic dish). It’s a whole fried eggplant and they add some miso sauce. You eat it with a spoon. When I ate it, I enjoyed it so much! When I came back here I took an eggplant, fried it and started playing. I didn’t like the sauce they presented the dish with, so I started to look for a twist. It was like doing an eggplant mousse. The taste of cod fish, the smoked work very well with the aubergine.

This is what I told you before, you find something you like and you adapt it and reinterpret it according to your own principles, to your own thinking, to what you’d like to propose.

This is the third of three parts. Part one is here; part two is here.

<i>Pedro Espinosa (aka <a href="http://forums.egullet.org/index.php?showuser=10675">pedro</a>) is an eGullet Society manager, and host of the Spain and Portugal forums.

Pedro wishes to thank Víctor de la Serna (vserna), Steven Shaw and Andy Lynes for their help with this interview.

Photographs copyright 2005 Can Fabes Gastronomic Leisure Center.</i>

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Pedro, I've really enjoyed these three interviews. Thank you so much for all the time and thought you put into them. Your interview conveys Santi Santamaria's very clear vision of what his cooking is about and having eaten there (oh, the way he cooks fish, and those wonderful sauces), I love the fact that he sticks to the more classical end of the spectrum.

In fact, not only did I really enjoy his wonderful cuisine, I also found that it provided me with a very accurate classical benchmark, which is important to fully appreciate some of the more avant garde cuisine in the region (which I also adore).

I don't feel it's necessary to be on one side or the other of this "culinary fence". I like the fact that different styles can co-exist in the same market.

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Pedro, this is sensational. The series presented a very enlightening view of one of the great chefs of the world. It's funny how a sort of rivalry has grown up between Santi Santamaria and Ferran Adria. Personally, like Corinna, I am glad they are both doing what they are doing. I find them to be complementary rather than at odds. Life and dining would be much more boring and certainly less delicious without either of them.

John Sconzo, M.D. aka "docsconz"

"Remember that a very good sardine is always preferable to a not that good lobster."

- Ferran Adria on eGullet 12/16/2004.

Docsconz - Musings on Food and Life

Slow Food Saratoga Region - Co-Founder

Twitter - @docsconz

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What I love about these interviews is how vividly Chef Santamaria's personality, philosophy, and passion come through. He seems like a warm and generous man, and also really intelligent and with lots of business smarts. I was struck by his discussion of the likely impact on Barcelona of changes in flight paths and the time frame that he expects those changes to happen.

Michael aka "Pan"


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Dear Pedro,

Excellent interview. I watch intensively the Chefs of spain and i discover with Santamaria an innovators with a different philosophy and style than Ferran Adria or others "Molecular" Chefs.


Revolutionary Minds Project

(Gastronomy, Science and Cuisine)

Montreal (Canada)

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